Widespread Practice Among Sephardim
It is one of the most enchanting Sephardic
practices: palms opening toward Shamayim when reciting Pote’ach Et Yadecha in Ashrei! It is practiced by those who follow Rav Ovadia Yosef (as noted by his grandson Rav Yaakov Sassoon at halachayomit.co.il), Ben Ish Chai (Teshuvot Torah Lishma Orach Chaim 31), and North African minhagim (Magen Avot, Orach Chaim page 88 following Teshuvot Kiryat Chanah David 1: Orach Chaim 13).
Rav Walbenberg’s Surprising Embrace of the Practice
None other than the great Jerusalem posek Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006; Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 12:8) adopted this minhag and recommended others follow it, despite it not being a traditional Ashkenazic practice!
Rav Waldenberg notes the benefit of an activity to stir us to the required kavana for this special pasuk “pote’ach et yadecha,” as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 51:7). The Gemara (Brachot 4b) notes that this pasuk is the centerpiece of Ashrei as it highlights our core belief of Hashem’s intervention to sustain us.
Moreover, Rav Waldenberg notes the power of augmenting our words with action. An example is Achiyah HaShiloni informing Yeravam ben Nevat of his destiny to rule over 10 of the shevatim supplemented by taking a cloak, splitting it into 12 (Melachim I 11:30), and handing Yeravam 10 pieces. The Malbim thereupon notes that Hashem does not rescind a prophecy accompanied by action.
Rav Waldenberg also notes that Moshe Rabbeinu (Shemot 17:11) raises his hands toward Shamayim during our battle with Amalek, and Shlomo HaMelech (Melachim I 8:22) extends his hands toward Shamayim during his great tefillah upon the inauguration of the Beit Hamikdash.
Two Basic Kabalistic Bases For Opening the Palms
We believe that an intriguing incident in Sefer Melachim also illuminates opening palms toward Shamayim when saying pote’ach et yadecha. Melachim II 4:1-7 records Elisha orchestrating a miracle on behalf of a widow of one of the bnei hanevi’im, which requires her to assemble many vessels, take the bit of oil she has remaining, and pour it into the gathered containers, which subsequently filled with oil.
However, there seems to be a much more straightforward way to accomplish this task. Why the need to assemble the vessels? Elisha can have a bit of oil overflow in a vast quantity into a large vat. One such large container is most likely available for the widow to put to use. We have discovered large vats for winemaking from ancient times throughout Eretz Yisrael. Why the need for all of the theatrics?
An Itaruta D’Litata
We believe an answer emerges from two basic mystical concepts. First, an itaruta d’litata, an awakening from below, precedes and triggers an itaruta d’l’eilah, an awakening from above. In His great wisdom and kindness, Hashem has allowed us to serve as His partners. This incredible partnership dignifies human efforts and enables us to feel a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. It is an essential element and building block of human dignity.
The Yam Suf, for example, could be split by Hashem, without Moshe Rabbeinu hitting the sea. Nonetheless, Hashem allows humanity to participate in the event and grants us a significant role. In Elisha’s oil miracle, the widow’s participation in the oil miracle lends her dignity. Along these lines, Elisha instructs her to pour the oil instead of doing it himself. Both she and her family are saved through her involvement in the miracle.
Many Ashkenazic and Sephardic men gather the four corners of their tallit when asking Hashem to gather us from the four corners of the earth and bring us to Eretz Yisrael. We intend our action to trigger the divine response of gathering the exiles and returning them to where we belong, Eretz Yisrael. Similarly, opening our palms toward Shamayim while saying “pote’ach et yadecha” moves Hashem to open His “palms,” so to speak, and bless us.
Ready for a Bracha
A second relevant mystical idea is the readiness to receive a bracha. Hashem may bestow a bracha, but an individual might not be prepared to receive it. For example, many or even most people who win the lottery are unable to handle the bracha of wealth, and, as a result, their lives become severely disrupted. Another example is a story about a Rothschild, who asked what a pauper would do if he were to give him a million dollars when approached by a pauper for a donation. The indigent individual responded that he would hire a driver and a well-appointed carriage and collect his alms in great dignity. His answer demonstrates that he is not ready to receive the bracha of wealth.
By assembling the vessels, the widow shows that she is prepared to accept the bracha of the oil. We are all bestowed with much bracha. Often the question is whether we are in a position to receive it. We might have a wonderful shul with a wonderful rav, but we might not be in a psycho-spiritual position to benefit from it. While a school teacher may be excellent, a student may not be in the right state of mind to learn.
This mystical idea is yet another reason for the Sephardic practice to open one’s hands when reciting the pasuk “pote’ach et yadecha umasbi’a l’chol chai ratzon.” Opening the palms expresses that he is ready for sustenance from Hashem.
Conclusion: Generating Hashem’s Intervention
Elisha teaches the widow and all generations of Jews how to elicit brachot and how to receive them. Sephardic Jews act upon this advice and open their palms toward Shamayim when reciting “pote’ah et yadecha” during Ashrei. Ashkenazim also might consider asking their rabbis about following Rav Waldenberg’s lead and adopting this practice as well.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.